Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris’ relationship stretches back decades at this point. When Morris was hired, he told the story of badgering Malzahn for information on his innovative offensive style multiple times until finally wearing him down into sharing some secrets when they were high school coaches in Texas and Arkansas, respectively.
Those early interactions paved the way to a friendship between two men that would eventually walk many of the same roads from coaching in high school to the SEC.
When Morris was let go as Arkansas’ head coach in 2019, it did not take long for the two friends to decide to work together in 2020. In a normal offseason the biggest story for Auburn football would have been the hiring of Chad Morris as offensive coordinator. Clearly, 2020 has been nowhere near normal.
Today, we take a deeper look at potential impacts the new hire could have on The Plains this season. Morris’ input in the following three areas could unlock the Auburn offense’s full potential this year.
Gus Malzahn-led teams rarely have real issues running the football. The Auburn Tigers have run the ball more frequently and effectively than most teams in the country during Malzahn’s tenure. The aspect of the offense that often struggles to find consistency has been the passing game.
While Chad Morris patterned his offensive style directly after Malzahn, in the past decade he has had more production throwing the ball than his current head coach. It appears that Chad Morris simply likes to throw the ball more than Malzahn. In the 10 seasons that Morris has been a college coach, his offenses have attempted at least 34 pass attempts a game nine times. Malzahn, on the other hand, has never had a season where his team attempted more than 30 passes per game.
Beyond a sheer disparity in volume, there is also a difference in the kind of passes that the offenses frequently attempt. Chad Morris was a much earlier adopter of the RPO (run-pass option) and also tends to have more passes target the middle of the field. Malzahn’s passing game has been primarily based around deep shots off play action or various screens that attack the perimeter quickly.
All of those passing schemes (and more) are effective when called cleverly and executed properly. It will likely be an indication of Morris’ involvement if the Tigers average somewhere near 35 pass attempts per game with more targets happening over the middle of the field this season.
When referencing personnel, we are simply pointing out the grouping of players on the field and how they are deployed on a given play. Gus Malzahn tends to favor two backs (tailback and H-back) and three receivers. Chad Morris on the other hand, has deployed one tailback, one tight end and three receivers as his most common grouping.
The use of an H-back versus a tight end may seem small, but it can lead to pretty significant differences in the choices that opposing defenses make to counter an offense. Some tight ends and H-backs are interchangeable, which can be a strength if used creatively. However, most H-backs are primarily blockers (like an I-formation fullback), whereas tight ends are valuable targets over the middle of the field in the passing game and valuable blockers on the edge in the running attack.
For example, last season at Arkansas, TE Cheyene O’Grady accounted for 33 catches for 372 yards along with three touchdown receptions in only seven games played. By contrast, Auburn’s John Samuel Shenker and Harold Joiner combined for nine catches, 129 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games last season.
Chad Morris’ history of using the tight end along with a renewed focus on recruiting the tight end position my signal more use of that position going forward. Expect to see a continuation of the use of an H-back, but a dramatic uptick in the use of the tight end position could point to Chad Morris exerting his influence on the gameplan.
Auburn fans are likely familiar with the fact that Gus Malzahn literally wrote the book on the hurry up no huddle offense. Clearly, the use of pace was one of the key factors in Malzahn’s rise as coach, and it continues to be a weapon today.
However, last week when Chad Morris addressed the media, he seemed to indicate a slightly different take on how an offense’s pace of play should be used in today’s game. In Morris’ opinion, it is now less important to snap the ball as quickly as possible every play than it is to be able to change the speed of play effectively.
Morris conveyed that he hopes to use versatile players that are able to line up in different places and perform multiple skills so that when Auburn gains an advantage in matchups, the offense can then speed up to require the defense to remain on the field and at a disadvantage.
It will be interesting to see if a revamped passing game, new personnel groupings, varied pace or any other noticeable wrinkles, coincide with Chad Morris’ arrival on The Plains this fall.
Auburn’s offense must take the next step to being a consistently explosive group this year to contend for the SEC championship. If Morris can facilitate that production, then the Tigers will have a chance to make the 2020 season one that Auburn fans remember fondly for years to come.
Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @z_m_shaw